AUGUSTA – Those who spoke at a public hearing on elections Thursday urged a panel to look for ways to make it easier, not harder, to vote.

“Lack of participation is significantly more serious than fraud,” said Arthur Davis, a 73-year-old from Woolwich.

About 55 people attended the hearing at the University of Maine Augusta, and many expressed concern about the possibility that legislators will pass a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.

The Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine was formed earlier this year by Secretary of State Charlie Summers and charged with studying voter participation and registration, and the conduct of elections. Summers is required to report the group’s findings to the Legislature no later than February.

Although the group has met three times, Thursday was the first in a series of eight public hearings. The five-member panel includes Chairman John Atwood, a former superior court judge; Paula Silsby, former U.S. attorney; Linda Cohen, Portland’s former city clerk, former Bangor Mayor Larry Willey and Tim Wilson, special adviser to Seeds of Peace and director of its Maine Seeds program.

Daniel Eccher of Augusta, a law school student, said the commission should find ways to encourage student voting.

“Encourage people to participate,” he said. “It is a right, not a privilege.”

Atwood started the hearing by asking for suggestions on how to improve elections and after several speakers focused on voter identification, asked for other ideas.

Fairfield Town Clerk Christine Keller said she does have concerns about holes in the system.

“I’m concerned about people that double vote,” she said.

Also, she said, clerks are not allowed to access the state’s central voter registration system on Election Day, which prevents her from checking to see if someone is registered in multiple towns.

Groups such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Disability Rights Center, Maine Women’s Lobby and Homeless Voices for Justice testified that women, senior citizens, minorities, the poor and those who are disabled would be disproportionally harmed by identification requirements.

For example, some older people may not have a birth certificate or driver’s license and women who get married or divorced must pay fees to get their names legally changed.

“Access to the polls shouldn’t be part of the price women pay,” said Laura Harper, a lobbyist for the Maine Women’s Lobby.

The concern with a new voter identification law stems from a bill introduced last year to require photo identification to vote.

The bill did not pass, but was turned into a resolve that created the commission.

Across the country, voter ID bills were the “hottest topic of legislation in the field of elections in 2011,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That year, voter ID bills were introduced in 34 states, including Maine, with 14 of those bills focusing specifically on photo identification.

Another area of concern expressed Thursday, the rules regarding student voters, came up because it was part of the 2011 campaign over same-day voter registration.

That’s when Republicans in the Legislature and the Maine Republican Party supported a bill that eliminated same-day voter registration, arguing that it would help prevent voter fraud. But several left-leaning groups formed a coalition to call for a people’s veto, and voters in November 2011 repealed the law 61 percent to 39 percent.

Shortly before the vote, Summers released a report saying he felt Maine’s system was vulnerable to fraud, but he found only one instance of illegal voting among nearly 500 names studied. Those names included 200 college students that were forwarded to Summers by Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster.

During Thursday’s hearing, Rick Langley of the Disability Rights Center said some voting places are not handicapped accessible and that a new voter identification requirement would further disenfranchise voters.

“I fear creating another barrier folks with disabilities have to face,” he said.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:

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